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Original Issue

Southern Discomfort

A Virginia town has split along racial lines over a stiff jail sentence meted out to high school basketball star Allen Iverson

To the people of Hampton, Va., the case of Allen Iverson—one of the greatest high school basketball stars the state has produced—comes down to one odious word: Nigger. It is among the most incendiary words in the American vernacular, and by 1993 it was only occasionally heard around town, uttered by the rednecks down at Buckroe Beach, perhaps, or a beerhead in the stands at Bethel High. Black teenagers hardly ever heard the word unless it was spoken by one of them. A chump word. A throwaway.

After last Feb. 13, however, everything changed. That was when Iverson, then 17, and a bunch of friends—mostly jocks, all Bethel students, all black—headed to Circle Lanes to bowl some games, eat some burgers, make some noise. The woman at the counter sent them to the end of the alley, to a lane against the wall. To Michael Simmons, the tight end who has been a pal of Iverson's since grade school, that always seemed to happen. You boys, over there. By the time they got their shoes and balls, it was 10:30. The place was rocking.

The black kids started goofing. They bowled on a closed lane, stood on chairs, cursed a bit too loudly. Stupid jock stuff. Somebody from the alley told them to cool it, then told them again. But, hey, it was Saturday night, heading into Valentine's Day, time for a little fun. Iverson was the leader, the point guard, the quarterback. Bubbachuck, they called him, and what he said went. When Iverson began thinking cheeseburger, more than one friend offered to go with him to the snack bar on the other side of the alley. Over by a group of white guys.

As Iverson approached, the white guys were finishing their last game, not to mention their last pitcher. They had been at it since 8:30. Steve Forrest, 22, and Iverson exchanged looks, and that was when it began. The way Iverson tells it, somebody in Forrest's party called him a "nigger" and a "little boy." Forrest is a big guy—6'2", 200 pounds—and he'd had his share of scrapes, including a felony conviction for cocaine possession. But Iverson, at 6'1" and 175, was smaller only on paper. He has the lean, sculpted body of the superb athlete that he is. This year Parade magazine named him the top high school basketball player in the country and one of the top 10 football players. He played quarterback and safety, and returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in 1992, his junior year. That night he was the most recognizable person in Hampton.

"You ain't gonna do nothin' to me," Iverson says he responded, his nose an inch from Forrest's. Then, according to Iverson and his friends, Forrest swung a chair at him and set off a melee in which chairs, fists and slurs flew like bowling pins. Several of Iverson's pals waded in and overwhelmed the whites. Another bunch of whites, who didn't know either group and didn't want to, was caught up; two people were knocked unconscious, one of them a 23-year-old college student, Barbara Steele, who was struck by a chair and would receive six stitches near her left eye.

Police moved in and later made four arrests. To many in Hampton, particularly blacks, who make up 39% of the city of 134,000 people, this is the key: All four suspects—Iverson; Simmons, 18; Melvin Stephens Jr., 17; and Samuel Wynn, 18—were black. "It's strange enough that the police waded through a huge mob of fighting people and came out with only blacks, and the one black that everybody knew," says NAACP crisis coordinator Golden Frinks. "But people thought they'd get a slap on the wrist and that would be the end of it."

It wasn't, not by a long shot. Last July, in separate trials, Iverson, Simmons and Wynn were convicted in circuit court as adults of "maiming by mob," a matter of surpassing irony given that the seldom-invoked law had mainly been used to prevent Klansmen from lynching blacks. Still, all signs pointed to probation, maybe a few hundred hours of community service; instead, on Sept. 8 judge Nelson Overton sentenced each of the three to 15 years in prison, with 10 years suspended (Stephens, who was convicted of three misdemeanors in April, is out on bail and attending junior college in Missouri). To top things off, Overton denied all bail requests pending appeals, even though felons convicted of far more heinous crimes are routinely granted bail.

"This is an extremely important civil rights issue not only for this area but for the whole country," says Curtis Harris of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). "But yes, this is causing a divide."

To say the least. Last Saturday 150 protesters marched through Hampton, chanting, "Free the Hampton Four" and "No justice, no peace," and singing Which Side Are You On? All the police ringing the demonstration were white; only one protester was white.

Around Hampton and nearby Newport News these days, blacks are wearing FREE IVERSON T-shirts; graffiti on buildings reads JUSTICE FOR BUBBACHUCK. Members of the Bethel High football team have refused to talk to reporters, and some black leaders have contemplated an economic boycott against local merchants and the media. It's all new territory for this historically complacent community in southern Virginia, where the closest thing to a big city is Norfolk, 20 minutes away, and the major claim to fame is predominantly black Hampton University.

The moving force behind the demonstrations is a group called SWIS, an acronym for Simmons, Wynn, Iverson and Stephens. To a large degree, the group is responsible for turning the case into a national cause cèlèbre. Tom Brokaw, USA Today, The Washington Post—they've all gone down, as have the SCLC and the NAACP, which set up a local office to monitor the case. Spike Lee has written Iverson. Some SWIS supporters—and there are more than 3.000 throughout the country—describe the case as a "judicial lynching" of "uppity" blacks by the white establishment. "Let's be honest," says Joyce Hopson, the Hampton teacher who heads SWIS, "if this weren't Allen Iverson, these kids don't go to jail. That's it."

Or is it? Not all of this case is that simple, and many of its elements are open to interpretation. Ultimately, this is a story about racial politics, 1993-style, in which the racism is subtle and veiled, and the linger pointing on both sides has often been misguided. Basically, SWIS is protesting three things: the fact that only blacks were arrested, the local media's coverage of the story and, especially, Overton's handling of the case.

First, the arrests. After word that the police were coming spread through the bowling alley, most of the black combatants fled, yelling, "Police! Police!" as many young black men are conditioned to do. The whites, many bruised and bloodied, remained and gave statements to the police. They told how, after Forrest and Iverson got into it, perhaps 20 of Iverson's friends came charging in, picking up chairs along the way and shouting, "Fight!" A black witness would later testify that Simmons had said, "They're messin' with my homeboy!" A blurry amateur videotape of the incident showed some black youths pummeling whites. "They were going crazy," recalls Kristi Alligood, a white witness who knew none of the combatants. "It was definitely a racial thing. During a break in the fighting Barbara [Steele] went up to one of the black guys and said, 'Why do you have to make this racial?' He just pressed two fingers against her face and pushed her away." That black person, both women insist, was Iverson.

Prosecutors, led by white Commonwealth attorney Christopher Hutton, a longtime NAACP member, say that no blacks pressed charges and that, anyway, all evidence suggested that the whites who threw chairs, including Forrest, did so in self-defense. They also say that those arrested were fingered by witnesses such as Brandon Smith, a black Bethel student who testified that he saw Iverson throw the chair that injured Steele.

Iverson says that after the initial business with Forrest, he and Stephens promptly left the bowling alley. "People try to start things with me because of who I am, and I know that means I have to stay away," he says while sitting in the Newport News City Farm, a minimum-security work camp where he has spent the last month. "It's definitely racial." But despite his statements that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, a number of witnesses said Iverson was in the middle of the brawl, which fits his style. As a player Iverson is known as a woofer, a yapper. "He's one of the most competitive kids I've ever seen," says Boo Williams, who runs a summer basketball league in which Iverson played and who compares Iverson with Kenny Anderson of the New Jersey Nets. "He's not one to back down, but that doesn't mean he's violent either. Just cocky. Last year he played behind a guard named Michael Evans. One day he says to me, 'I can take Mike.' I say, 'I'm sure you can take Evans, Allen.' He says, 'No, I mean Mike.' " Yes, that Mike.

Perhaps only Iverson and Forrest know for sure what started the brawl. Forrest testified in court that Iverson got in his face and someone else clocked him for no good reason. (Forrest declined to be interviewed by SI, saying, "I've got nothing to gain by it.") After Forrest's testimony, the pro-Iverson whisper campaign began in earnest: Steele was friendly with the judge's family; there was another videotape somewhere showing Iverson running for his life; an unindicted Bethel student was about to confess that he, not Iverson, had struck Steele. There was little evidence to support any of this, but that hardly stopped the talk.

"A lot of this criticism is coming from people who never bothered to attend the trials," says Hampton prosecutor Colleen Killilea, who gained a measure of local fame by urging the judge to "just do it" to Iverson after he imprudently jetted to a Nike-sponsored tournament when his trial broke for the weekend. "This was a violent mob. We tried them as a mob because, while we couldn't link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred."

Which brings us back to that one word. The subject of racism has been dissected by the local media, particularly the Newport News Daily Press, which has been dubbed the Daily White by some SWIS supporters. Editorials have referred to Iverson's "troubled" past, which, to many blacks, is the sort of word white people tend to apply to young black men who, like Iverson, have grown up in crime-ridden neighborhoods, with no fathers and no money. (Iverson once skipped a speaking engagement because he didn't own a decent dress shirt.) Iverson has had problems: chronic classroom absenteeism, poor grades, BMOC-itis. But aside from a traffic violation, he had never before been in trouble with the law.

A lion's share of criticism from blacks has been aimed at Daily Press columnist Jim Spencer, who is white. Spencer recently tackled the epithet issue head-on by arguing that use of the word nigger hardly justified forming a mob to mercilessly attack whites, some of whom were innocent bystanders. To many people Spencer's column seemed hopelessly naive. "It's easy to say now that you shouldn't fight," says Williams. "But these are kids. Get in their face, pick a fight, provoke them and they'll fight." Everything spilled out last month at the Queens Street Baptist Church, where local ministers and 500 Iverson supporters focused their anger on Spencer, who was covering the rally. "We don't need some rich white guy telling us how to raise our kids!" one of them thundered. "Racist!" others screamed.

"It made me sad." recalls Spencer. "The body of my work shows that I treat everyone as individuals and that I'm not a racist." Overall, the paper's coverage of the case has indeed been fair and exhaustive; it has commissioned polls on race relations and has run an occasional column answering readers' questions about the Iverson case and attempting to quell rumor mongering.

But there's a larger question here, one that transcends conspiracy theories, media bashing and the dispute over whether somebody called somebody else a nigger: Why are three teenagers locked away in jail for such offenses? "A fight! A fight!" rails Newport News minister Marcellus Harris. "They were given long prison sentences because they got in a fight in a bowling alley." Iverson's attorney, James Ellenson, is even blunter. "These white guys got their butts kicked in a fight," he says, "and, hey, somebody had to put those black kids in their place, make an example out of them."

That somebody was Overton, who SWIS claims has been disproportionately tough on black defendants. Overton handed down a sentence that was on a par with those frequently given to rapists and murderers. In denying an appeal bond, Overton said that Iverson "would be a risk" of not returning to court—a dubious assertion given Iverson's close ties to the community, his clean record and his desire to stay in school and play the sports that most likely will make him rich. In Virginia, all but the most violent criminals are routinely granted appeal bonds, and prosecutor Killilea says her office was ready to recommend a $15,000 bond. The only catch was, Overton didn't bother to hear her recommendation. Then, when the outcry arose, he went on vacation.

Overton isn't the only judge whose rulings can be questioned. Before Iverson entered Overton's court, his probation officer had strongly urged that the then 17-year-old be tried as a juvenile. Such a recommendation is almost uniformly followed, but this time, juvenile court judge Louis Lerner ordered the case to circuit court after a preliminary hearing.

Even many of Iverson's toughest critics were stunned by some of the turns the case has taken. Spencer, for example, thinks Iverson should have been allowed to go off to Maine Central Institute, a prep school that specializes in helping athletes with academic deficiencies.

Largely lost in the publicity shuffle are Simmons and Wynn, who now spend their days in the dreary Hampton City Jail. Their requests to join Iverson at the Farm were denied because, according to that facility's warden, having even Iverson causes enough commotion. And Iverson had requested the Farm first. "It's Iverson-this, Iverson-that," complains Wynn. "It's not really fair because nobody ever talks about us, but that's not Chuck's fault."

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the shouting continues. Alleging that she has suffered severe amnesia and permanent scarring, Steele has filed a $200,000 lawsuit against Iverson; according to Virginia law, Iverson's future earnings could be attached for the next 20 years. ("After all," Steele says, "I'm a victim, not Allen Iverson.") Circle Lanes has changed its name, and its owner says business is off. Several college basketball recruiters have backed away from Iverson, although a Virginia assistant coach has kept in touch and a recent visitors' log at City Farm was signed by George Washington coach Mike Jarvis. "I'm sure some will stay away," Iverson says. "But it'll work out. This has given me time to think about what I need to do to succeed in the world."

There are fleeting signs of hope. A circuit court in Richmond is considering Iverson's appeal, and, at worst, Iverson, Simmons and Wynn probably will be paroled by next July. A group of black ministers is meeting with the Hampton Chamber of Commerce to try to defuse the situation, and a threat to pull black kids out of school in protest is waning. On a more visceral note, there is the story of the black woman who, immediately after the melee, nursed Steele until medics arrived. Eschewing self-promotion, the woman has declined to come forward. To her, at least, compassion was color-blind.



On Saturday some of the same townspeople who once cheered Iverson (left) in the gym now demonstrated for him on the street.



[See caption above.]



Angry at the media and merchants as well as at the judge, Iverson's supporters cried out for justice.



[See caption above.]



Killilea says she was prepared to recommend bond, but Overton (left) acted on his own.



Iverson courted ill will by flying off to a tournament during the trial.